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Aviation - A Brighter Tomorrow: Avoid crippling aviation as climate change confrontations increase

  • Market Insight 10 August 2020 10 August 2020
  • Global, Americas, Asia Pacific, Middle East, UK & Europe

  • Aviation

Partner Peter Coles outlines some of the measures the aviation industry has taken to reduce carbon emissions and says governments must avoid crippling aviation as climate change confrontations increase following the Covid-19 crisis

The cleaner air, bluer skies, and reduced pollution that many of us are experiencing as a result of the global lockdowns are welcome and provide much needed silver linings.  However, as governments seek to avoid an immediate return to pre lockdown emissions levels, the aviation industry should not be used as a punch-bag or seen as a panacea for quick and easy emissions wins.

The world’s most polluted cities are experiencing record-breaking declines in smog as coronavirus-induced lockdowns curtail big sources of air pollution such as road traffic, heavy industry, construction projects and the burning of fossil fuels. Indeed, on the 3rd of June, the Korea Herald reported "From Mumbai to Beijing to Madrid, the global coronavirus pandemic has brought back clear skies and visibly cleaner air, as a sharp slowdown in human activity has allowed Mother Nature the much-needed time to heal some of her wounds." In April, Eco-Business reported

The irony. A disease that attacks the lungs, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people might actually be prolonging some lives by reducing air pollution.

(21 April 2020 Robin Hicks, Eco-Business)

Perhaps because they inhabit the very skies that now appear so clear, some are too quick to see a permanent grounding of aircraft as a simple and feasible solution to the pollution we suffer and the climate crisis we face. For example, a professor of energy and climate change at Manchester University recently asked: "We are not flying as much – why not keep not flying?” Then a former EU climate commissioner (Miguel Arias Cañete in an interview with the Guardian on 1 April 2020) and a group of green campaigners said that financial help from taxpayers to airlines hit by the coronavirus crisis must come with strict conditions on their future climate impact. “It must be conditional, otherwise when we recover we will see the same or higher levels of carbon dioxide [from flying]” he said. When a European airline received a government bailout a few weeks ago one of the conditions attached was that the airline should sharply cut back on domestic flights with a duration of less than 2.5h if there is a rail alternative.

In the UK, there have been calls for a new fiscal regime that includes a frequent flyer levy or air miles levy, which would reduce demand without removing access to flights from those with limited alternatives or limited resources. This will shift the tax burden to frequent leisure flyers.

Commitment to climate change

Aviation clearly contributes to global emissions and has a clear part to play in tackling climate change. The industry is very aware of that and is committed to making improvements not least because  it has recognised for some time the impact that climate change, whether inclement weather, tropical storms, floods and massive wildfires, have on their operations and business models.

The aviation industry has been setting itself environmental targets for the last 20 years and has been taking steps to address its carbon emissions for years. In 2016, over 192 countries agreed to the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), a market-based emissions reduction programme set to begin in 2021 with the goal of limiting net emissions growth from aviation to 2020 levels. Under CORSIA, airlines will buy credit to offset emissions from their flights.

There have also been very significant investments in more advanced and efficient aircraft and engines, low and zero lifecycle carbon biofuels, reductions in the use of plastics, the elimination of waste and other projects.

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Yet there is a perception of a lack of action and demands for more radical steps.  There have been protests, physical blocking of aircraft and runways, drone airport-disruption threats and flight shaming.

Some view the grounding of flights and cross-border travel restrictions imposed by COVID  as a glimpse into what the future of flying could look like, with many people deciding not to fly any longer. While the experience of lockdown may well encourage some people to take fewer flights, air travel is not going to end and its impact on climate change must be fairly assessed and addressed accordingly.

The outlook

Eliminating flying entirely would have only a marginal impact on total global emissions (the IPCC estimates between 2 and 4%) and is also not feasible without radically changing how businesses work and people live their lives, not to mention a hit on global economic growth. It is far too important to domestic economies and world trade.  It is the only way to transport time sensitive cargo across continents quickly.  It is hard to envisage governments now making the necessary and massive investments in surface transport to compete effectively with aviation. It is no surprise that the countries that have fully embraced "flight shaming" are the countries with the best transport infrastructure, including high speed trains.

The aviation industry does not lack ideas or desire when it comes to reducing emissions but there are significant technological, regulatory and legal challenges and costs. For example, finding an alternative to kerosene, and identifying a sustainable power source, suggests electric power is the answer. There is a difficulty though. A fully electric system requires batteries with greater energy densities than those currently available that are fully reliable and have a long life. Current batteries can only power small aircraft.  Predictions of when appropriate batteries might be available for commercial in service all-electric larger aircraft (with 50 seats or more) vary but it could be as far away as the 2050s.  

Clearer skies during this crisis should not become a pretext for dramatic and punitive controls on aviation. Nor need it become a pretext for the aviation industry to back away from its sustainability goals, including decarbonisation. Ultimately, we all have a role to play in managing damaging human activity and we should help the aviation industry survive while it continues to reduce its carbon emissions in a sustainable way.  

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